Rugby Union: Hard-bitten Falcons soar above snipers

The picture that English rugby found difficult to swallow...
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The Independent Online
Tim Glover looks at the latest ruck that focused headlines on Newcastle for all the wrong reasons

WHEN Rob Andrew walked into the tunnel following Newcastle's hard- fought victory over Leicester last Monday, his first words were: "That was a bit lively." The Falcons' director of rugby has become accustomed this season to deft use of the euphemism. The following morning the picture changed dramatically.

For professional rugby union, the photograph was a public relations disaster. The only thing missing from the image of Paul Van-Zandvliet apparently sinking his teeth into the head of Neil Back was a black cape and a pair of bloody fangs.

Though Leicester made light of the incident, impressionable youngsters might conclude that a more appetising sport would be preferable. Twice bitten thrice shy. It took the game a long time to get over the biting allegations made by London Scottish against Bath. The difference this time is that the victim was not complaining.

"I can't remember being bitten on the head at any stage," Back said. "I was bitten on the thumb but I could have been caught by accident in an act of pushing a player away."

Van-Zandvliet, a Tynesider and a former trawlerman, claimed he had been gouged by Back and any attempt at citing would almost certainly have been reciprocated. Peter Wheeler, the Leicester chief executive, was another witness for the defence. "In rucks and mauls you get players pressed very tightly together and if somebody has their mouth open it can be misconstrued."

Indeed. Just like walking into somebody's fist.

Tomorrow Newcastle will move above Saracens and return to the top of the Premiership in their penultimate match if they beat Bath at home in what promises to be another intensely physical contest. Leicester, who pride themselves on possessing a pack that is as hard as nails, were up against a hammer at Gateshead.

Graham Rowntree and Darren Garforth, the Leicester props, were shown yellow cards as was Richard Arnold, the Newcastle flanker. By the end of a torrid afternoon even the choir boys forgot their haloes, Will Greenwood being sent off for butting Andrew. "It was pretty innocuous," Andrew said. "It was more a kiss than a butt."

Bite? What bite? Butt? What butt? Dean Richards, the Leicester coach, said Greenwood was "not one of the game's head cases". Richards then said something that struck a nerve. "For some reason there is a problem every time we play Newcastle."

Andrew agrees there is a problem - and that it lies, not in the North- east, but in the Midlands. "Look at the games in which brawls have taken place and look at the club that has been involved. We've had no trouble in our other high-profile games." Is Andrew possibly talking about Leicester? "I didn't say that."

In the Allied Dunbar Fair Play League (based on points for red, yellow and white cards) the team with the most points, i.e. the "unfairest", finishes bottom. Leicester are at the foot of the table. Newcastle are neither foul nor fish, occupying mid-table (the fairest in the Premiership are London Irish).

"It's a physical contact sport," Andrew said. "We don't go out looking for trouble but if we need to look after ourselves when opponents cause flashpoints we will always do that. Discipline is a very important part of the make-up of the club. You can't be a successful side at this level without a great deal of physical and technical discipline. The referees know who are the dirty sides and the dirty players and we are not among them. We do not condone acts of foul play and are very strict on discipline."

Sometimes the RFU do not think so. Last season, when Newcastle were gaining promotion, they were at the centre of a cause celebre when Nick Popplewell hit Scott Murray of Bedford. Although Popplewell was fined a week's wages, the RFU disciplinary committee flexed their muscles for the first time and suspended the Falcons prop.

This season, in the first game at Bath, Nathan Thomas, after kicking Tim Stimpson, was thumped by Dean Ryan, the Newcastle No 8. Again the RFU interceded to take action.

Newcastle have become synonymous with the following adjectives: intimidating, abrasive, physical. Their success is based around a pack that doesn't take prisoners and an aggressive defence that models itself on rugby league. They have also scored a lot more tries than anybody else. So is the sniping justified?

"When Newcastle and Richmond went up, a lot of people were hoping to see us fall flat on our faces," John Kingston, the Richmond coach and a Geordie, said. "It was as if there was a divine right to sit at the top table and we were not part of the established order. Newcastle are very tightly knit and when criticised withdraw into themselves. Whatever you throw at them they will use to their advantage.

"They have men who play to the limit and I don't mean that in a derogatory way. If you pussyfoot around in this league you're in trouble. To be accused by a team like Leicester of over- professionalism should be taken as a compliment."

There are other reasons why Newcastle have an image problem: when Newcastle- Gosforth was swallowed up by the Falcons, there was no attempt to preserve traditions or even keep the old club's colours; Sir John Hall, the owner, is not exactly perceived as a knight in shining armour and even the venue is considered an awkward trek for the southern press. And, of course, they are very successful.

"There is an element of sour grapes," Kingston said. "If you look at what happened to Saracens and Northampton when they first moved into the top-flight you should appreciate what a fantastic job Newcastle have done. If they win the championship it will be a staggering achievement."

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